Monday, September 30, 2013

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Englishman Terry Sheffield and American Sarah Morton conduct a trans-Atlantic relationship after meeting on a vacation in Costa Rica. While Terry is visiting in the U.S., they get married in Vegas, but then Terry has to return to the U.K. to complete the paperwork that will allow him to live and work in the U.S.

Six months after Terry and Sarah last saw each other on their honeymoon, the paperwork is completed, Terry has left his old life and his job in England and has landed a new job at a biotech firm in California. He lands in San Francisco and hurries off the plane, anxious to be reunited with Sarah and to begin their new life together.

Except that Sarah doesn't show up at the airport.

Terry calls her cell phone several times, but gets no response. Finally, he reluctantly takes a shuttle to their new home, but Sarah isn't there either. Terry reports her missing, but the local sheriff is skeptical and wonders if Sarah is simply a bride who's already decided she made a mistake and run off. In the alternative, is it possible that Sarah, an investigative reporter, is working on a story that has taken her away from home?

None of those explanations make any sense to Terry, especially since Sarah has not even returned his phone calls. Obviously, he is thinking the worst. While waiting for something to break, Terry has no choice but to report to work at Genavax, his new employer. But after being heavily courted by the company, he gets a distinctly cool reception. He'd asked Sarah to check out the firm before accepting their job offer and he soon learns that in the process, Sarah had antagonized some of the company honchos. At the moment, they are not very happy with Terry or his wife.

To make matters worse, in sifting through the papers Sarah left at home, Terry discovers that she was investigating the murders of several women who apparently died at the hands of the same serial killer. Is it possible that Sarah fallen into the hands of the killer as well?

This is a very taut, well-told tale with any number of unexpected twists and turns. Even people who read a lot of thrillers are certain to be surprised on several occasions. Terry Sheffield is a very sympathetic character and the reader inevitably gets caught up in his struggle to find his missing wife while at the same time he tries to adapt to a new job and to life in a new country. Simon Wood should attract a lot of new fans with this book.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Delhi Noir

Hirsh Sawhney, Editor
Akashic Books
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


Brand new stories by: Irwin Allan Sealy, Omair Ahmad, Radhika Jha, Ruchir Joshi, Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, Meera Nair, Siddharth Chowdhury, Mohan Sikka, Palash K. Mehrotra, Hartosh Singh Bal, Hirsh Sawhney, Tabish Khair, Uday Prakash, and Manjula Padmanabhan.

The eyes of the world are gazing at India—the world’s largest democracy. But the books you read about this Asian giant only show part of the picture.

Delhi Noir’s fourteen original stories are written by the best Indian writers alive today—the ones you haven’t yet heard of but should have. They are veteran authors who have appeared on the Booker Prize short list and budding geniuses who your grandchildren will read about in English class. Delhi Noir is a world of sex in parks, male prostitution, and vigilante rickshaw drivers. It is one plagued by religious riots, soulless corporate dons, and murderous servants. This is India uncut, the one you’re missing out on because mainstream publishing houses and glossy magazines can’t stomach it. offers bone-chilling, mesmerizing takes on the country’s chaotic capital, a city where opulence and poverty are constantly clashing, where old-world values and the information age wage a constant battle.

My Review

Once again, I have sought out another book from the Akashic series of short stories that takes place in a variety of cities around the world. I am still in the mood for dark, short stories, so Delhi Noir was the perfect choice.

I have never been to India, and based on this collection of stories, I'm not sure if I want to go. It is chaotic, crowded, loud, corrupt, poor and dirty. There is also amazing architecture, natural beauty and good food, even the cheap stuff you get at the roadside stalls. I'm very glad for my literary journey to Delhi. The stories were vivid enough to give me a glimpse into a culture very different from my own, even if they show humanity at its worst.

I'm a little disappointed that out of the 14 contributors, only 3 of them are women. Nevertheless, their stories are outstanding.

Manjula Padmanabhan's Cull is the very last story and one of my favorites in this collection. More speculative fiction than noir, it is very dark and would make an excellent novel. It shows the callous disregard people in power have for the poor residents of the Acres and it shows how strong and resourceful the poor can be.

"From the bottom of the pit, all roads lead up. So in one sense, this is an extremely positive place to be. Rich people throw away things at such a rate that for us, living in the dump, we only have to wait long enough before whatever we want comes sailing out of the sky - for free! Cars, food, books, furniture, machinery, medicine, bottles toys - you wouldn't believe how much gets thrown away. And very often in its original packing. So we're not complaining. We take what we need, repackage the rest, and send it back out."

Radhika Jha's very humorous How I Lost My Clothes effectively highlights the contrasts between the rich and the poor of Delhi and shows how a new set of clothes can change one druggie's perspective on life.

Meera Nair's Small Fry shows a glimpse of the harsh life of a 15-year-old street boy as he looks for a fast way to make some money. Crime, corruption and greed make this one a top-notch story.

And now the men:

Omair Ahmad's Yesterday's Man was not one of my favorites in this collection, but I did enjoy the detectives working together to solve a case involving the 1984 mass murder of Sikhs, an event I have little knowledge of, but plan to explore further.

Irwin Allan Sealy's Last In, First Out, told from the perspective of a rickshaw driver, very vividly describes the city of Delhi and some of its beautiful and more secluded spots, where young lovers like to retreat. Unfortunately, sexual assaults are rampant here and the rickshaw driver decides to take matters into his own hands.

Ruchir Joshi's Parking is probably my least favorite in this collection. The corrupt, perverted cops annoyed me and I couldn't care about a single character.

Nalinaksha Bhattacharya's Hissing Cobras features another corrupt police officer who wants to charge a woman with a crime he has no proof she committed, so he blackmails her. He picked the wrong woman to mess with. I loved this gritty and satisfying story.

Mohan Sikka's The Railway Aunty is not about someone's aunt. This term is used to refer to older female family friends or neighbors. A heady mix of greed and lust. Terrific story.

Siddharth Chowdhury's Hostel was utterly creepy and voyeuristic. I don't mean that in a good way.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra's Fit of Rage shows the effects of unrestrained male anger. Very disturbing, but well-written and compelling.

Hartosh Singh Bal's Just Another Death is an interesting story about a reporter trying to survive in a changing industry. Death is secondary.

Tabish Khair's The Scam. A shoe-shine boy and woman engage the curiosity of two journalists.

Hirsh Sawhney's Gautam Under a Tree is a sad and moving story about a former journalist who accepts an assignment to write about the murder of his friend who was a political activist. This is a dangerous undertaking, as he well knows.

Uday Prakash's The Walls of Delhi is another favorite of mine. Ramnivas the sweeper comes across stacks of money hidden in a wall where he's cleaning. He uses this money to provide a better life for his family and entertain his mistress. Of course, there are consequences to making it big the easy way.

A worthy collection. Up next, Paris!
Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banned Books Week, Censorship, and the High Price of Apathy

Frederic C. Rich

W.W. Norton
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5 appalled, terrified stars of five

The Publisher Says: “They said what they would do, and we did not listen. Then they did what they said they would do.”

So ends the first chapter of this brilliantly readable counterfactual novel, reminding us that America’s Christian fundamentalists have been consistently clear about their vision for a “Christian Nation” and dead serious about acquiring the political power to achieve it. When President McCain dies and Sarah Palin becomes president, the reader, along with the nation, stumbles down a terrifyingly credible path toward theocracy, realizing too late that the Christian right meant precisely what it said.

In the spirit of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, one of America’s foremost lawyers lays out in chilling detail what such a future might look like: constitutional protections dismantled; all aspects of life dominated by an authoritarian law called “The Blessing,” enforced by a reconfigured Internet known as the “Purity Web.” Those who defy this system, among them the narrator, live on the edges of society, sustained by the belief that democracy will rise to triumph over such tyrannical oppression.

My Review: It's Banned Books Week, so we are well advised to think about what the ability to ban a book really means. In Rich's novel, banning a book is no longer a concern. The apparatus of theocracy has taken over the libraries. Nothing so trivial as banning A book is necessary, slate entire areas of human knowledge for destruction. Pulp those books that don't tell the story you want told. Knowledge dies, after all. We saw that after the fall of the Roman Empire. The only libraries were in monasteries, and the only works supposed to be preserved were dogmatic, didactic christian texts. Fortunately, some subversives hid works by Lucretius, Epicurus, Juvenal, Suetonius, in their stacks. As theocracy self-destructed, as all -ocracies (including dem-) inevitably do, sharp-eyed secularists found these works and brought them out into the public gaze for the first time in as much as a millennium. (For more about this, see my review of The Swerve.)

Think about that. For a millennium, a thousand years, knowledge that might have led the world out of pervasive hunger, away from destructive hatred and war over trivia, was hidden away so it would at least survive as words on paper. It couldn't be discussed, because it couldn't be read. It was banned. Very effectively and efficiently banned. When the ban was lifted, the world's best brains went into overdrive and they've never slowed down since.

Yet we still, after this excellent example of the benefits of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom from the fear that censorship breeds, we still have to fight the well-meaning, well-intentioned, and always wrong "moral protectors" and "nicey-nice police." It doesn't have to start big, and in fact, that is author Rich's point in this novel. His story, of a subversive in the Christian Nation, a convert to the Church of God in America from the losing side in the Seige of Manhattan, starts with the run-up to the 2008 election. In Rich's horrifying nightmare, McCain and Palin won, and then they did what they said they would do: They "restored American to a Christian Nation." They used your smartphone with its eternal connection to communication satellites to track you. It's the law that you must have it on you. It's the law that every device you use must be connected to the Purity Web (which we call universal wi-fi connectivity, and long for!) that your every utterance or interface with another person be monitorable.

Imagine how many gigaflops of information this state collects. And sifts. And uses against its citizens, but only in the kindest of spirits and in the expectation of their draconian rules and totalitarian controls bringing all souls to the Rapture as pure as is possible.

This kind of nightmare is all too possible. Look at the Taliban in Afghanistan. Look at the rhetoric coming out of the Tea Party. No, no, says the complacent and lazy citizen, who can't be bothered to vote for school board members or participate in electioneering, no way can that happen here.

“The biggest mistake that we can make is that we don’t believe that they believe what they say. And for many of them, they do mean exactly what they say," says author Rich in his interview from this past July. Look at the Texas school textbook adoption wars over presenting creationism as a scientific theory. All of those folks are the few who bother to show up, and those are usually the wingnuts from the religious right with an agenda to impose.

This novel is set in a world that didn't happen, where the battle against censorship costs lives. Those lives are lost because, in that world like this one we live in, so very many of us can't be bothered, don't want to, are too tired or bored or stressed or lazy to, stand up and say NO MORE when censorship is proposed or imposed. And Rich, a high-powered financial industry lawyer, works with the kind of people whose money-making and self-interest are tightly bound up with the trends in thought and speech around the world. In short, if he doesn't know from the inside whereof he speaks when he speaks about the consequences voicelessness, of stifled freedom to speak and think as one desires, no one alive does.

Start where you are. Do what you can, what you're capable of doing. Fight the small battles and, win or lose, the war's course will change. Maybe you'll even live long enough to be glad that you did. I only hope you won't live long enough to regret that you didn't.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ruminations on the Mythic West - Canadian Style

Tay John

Howard O'Hagan

New Canadian Library

Reviewed by: Terry 

4 out of 5 stars


_Tay John_ is a woefully under-appreciated book that deserves wider attention. Written by Howard O'Hagan, a true son of the Canadian west who was, by turns, a surveyer, a lawyer, and a wilderness guide in addition to being a writer, it stands as a great example of wilderness writing at its best. As the Canadian Encyclopedia says: "O'Hagan has been the quintessential 'mountain man' who knew the wilderness intimately and celebrated it through fiction."

In _Tay John_ we have a story in three parts. The first, "Legend", starts out like a creation myth and tells the somewhat cryptic story of the birth and youth of the enigmatic Native half-breed known as Tay John (derived from the french "Tête Jaune" or "Yellowhead" on account of his unique blond hair). We see the circumstances of his birth and his early life among his people, his eventual restlessness, and the beginning of his life of wandering.

In the second part, "Hearsay", we focus on the outdoorsman Jack Denham and his tall tales of the heroic Tay John, whose path he crosses several times in the wilderness. We begin to see the wider shape of the world of the Canadian Rockies at the end of the 19th century as the civilization of the white man encroaches upon the wilderness that heretofore held sway. Tay John begins to get entangled in this new world and is torn between the opportunities it offers and the ancient prophecies and expectations of his native tribe.

In the third and final section, "Evidence - without a finding", the conflict between the old and new ways of the world comes to a head and Tay John is caught in the middle. The end of his tale proves to be as enigmatic as was its beginning and the reader is left to draw his own conclusions about its meaning.

The most outstanding element of O'Hagan's story is his descriptive prose. It's obvious that the man knew and loved the wilderness of which he writes and we see into the everyday lives and concerns of the men who preferred to live their lives on the outskirts of society, able to plunge into the wilderness when it called to them. His characters are also a colourful bunch, running the gamut of pioneers, explorers, preachers and trappers who peopled the Canadian west. We move from wide panoramic scenes of the mountains and the forests to a close focus on the individual lives of people making their way in this wide world. All in all, I found _Tay John_ to be a compelling and moving story that portrayed its world and characters with vivid detail and wonder.

Also posted at Goodreads

The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay started off his illustrious career as a fantasist with The Fionavar Tapestry, one of those rare trilogies that actually grows in power with each book. Although the first novel has its challenges - mainly around a rather clumsy interaction with our own world - his mastery of poetic prose is quickly recognizable. This is an author who sprung into existence fully formed.



although quite a wonderful novel overall, it is hard to love at first. sometimes you get to know people who seem automatically awkward, whose social style is stilted, composed of quotes from movies or off-putting attempts to be clever, insisting on repeating tired tales, who seem eager to please yet incapable of easy connection. but you get to know them over time and those trappings fall away, the awkwardness fades and they become real, three-dimensional, a friend even. and so it is with The Summer Tree.

at first, it is pure template. The Lord of the Rings is more than an inspiration; Tolkein's characters and themes and countries are all directly paralleled within. as such, it is often a very familiar novel and, just as often, that does not work in its favor. what becomes an equal problem is the staginess of the opening chapters and the awkwardness of the dialogue and characterization. both are rather off-putting and the novel starts out with a stumble.

but after that stumble...oh, the riches! what seemed to be trite characters soon flower into figures far more rich, fascinating, enigmatic, even iconic. their adventures moved quickly into the unexpected yet retained a richly mythic quality. the quality of the writing beyond the dialogue is striking: Kay does not engage in lush description but rather chooses his words carefully, and the simplicity yet sophistication of word choice often made me pause, and read them again: a haiku of a tale, compared to Tolkein's extravagant epic poem. the mythos itself remained entrenched in the familiar, but that becomes a virtue - at times it felt as if I was reading an original telling of these tales and a recounting of these myths, as if this were actually the original template, as if the tried-and-true depiction of celtic-flavored mysticism, the elves & dwarfs & trolls, the ancient powers and unending evils were being presented in their purest and most direct format. and its combination of modern (5 modern students cross dimensions) and classic (mythological kingdoms that are the true reality) becomes a delight - wit and sad wisdom doled out equally. I certainly was not expecting to read about one character's embarrassing hard-on; nor did I expect the tragic driving death of a loved one and the suicidal yearnings of that crash's survivor to become a touchstone drawn movingly upon during somber self-sacrifice. the two worlds become surprisingly and effectively intertwined.

the penultimate chapter is one of harrowing devastation and mortification. I'm not sure I've read such a terrible and horrifying episode of torment and despair, and one that wastes no time in excessive cataloguing of the indecent tortures visited upon a tragic character. the horrors depicted in this sequence are, again, mythic in scope and meaning, yet disturbingly modern in their ability to repulse and sadden. 


This middle volume is pretty damn good. two things in particular stick out for me:

104088Sex. I love how this novel places sexuality at the center of much of its magic, both implicitly and explicitly. it is really refreshing. and not corny! I suppose that is the danger of including sex in fantasy - if its not done right, it is a trashy sex scene or, even worse, an eye-rolling tantric experience featuring new age nonsense that makes me gag. sexuality in this novel is mysterious, natural, unnatural, a profound part of some magic, a threatening form in other kinds of magic, and just a regular part of life as well, no big deal. it is taken seriously but it is also not turned into the whole point either - it is an important part of the tapestry, so to speak. it is a refreshingly adult perspective.

Rape. at the end of the last novel, a major character was captured, tormented, and raped repeatedly. it was a horrifying sequence and also exceedingly, surprisingly well-done. I have actually never read its like before in a fantasy novel - i was horrified while simultaneously impressed by the language, by the ability of the author to remove all traces of potential, repulsive "sexiness", by the way the author showed how the raped character retained her strength while never shying away from how truly negating the experience was, in every way imaginable. in the sequel, Jennifer does not just bounce back. it is not an easy journey for her and she doesn't try to make the people around feel better as they try to comfort her. in a way, reading about Jennifer took me to a sad place, as I recalled the couple friends I've known who were assaulted sexually, and the struggles they lived with for so long after, and probably still live with to this day. Jennifer's character and her struggles seemed so true, in particular her detachment. and when she at last is able to make a faltering step, then another, and another, on the road to recovery, and when she's finally able to even experience sex again, to experience a connection to another person that is both emotional and physical... it was like seeing something slowly coming through in an endless gray sky, some light at last appearing, after waiting for so long. that's a trite image, i know, but that's how it felt to me. I teared up a little bit reading that scene, and I think that's the first time tears have ever sprung to my eyes when reading something so basic as a love scene.


104087The concluding volume of Fionavar Tapestry is a perfect fantasy novel. Happily stripped of the awkward, stilted ‘real world’ situations and dialogue that occasionally marred the preceding novels, The Darkest Road takes place entirely in Fionavar and is all the stronger because of it. The narrative is simple: the characters all engage in a series of final meetings, battles, and individual confrontations that were carefully set up in books 1 and 2. The world is saved, of course. And at such a high cost, of course. The writing is also straightforward. This is not a novel full of lush description; nevertheless, the carefully chosen words, the elegantly stripped-down prose, the overall precision and artistry of the writing should serve as a lesson to all would-be writers: sometimes lavish world-building is not necessary to create a world, or to create a work of art. Kay conveys everything he needs to convey in language that is as simple yet as poetic as a fable. The entire trilogy, rooted as it is in timeless myths, has all the resonance of genuine mythology, one that describes both the beginning and end of all such legends. Kay boils down the tropes of fantasy literature until they are at their most iconic, and then breathes wonderful new life into them.

Who takes the Darkest Road? So many of Fionavar Tapestry’s characters must walk paths that end in death and darkness.

Finn takes a solitary path, riding with The Wild Hunt, slaughtering evil and good alike, becoming a thread of chaos in the tapestry. But in the end, he makes his choice, and chooses well, as all heroes must. All of the heroes in the series are faced with hard life choices, and all of them choose well in the end. It is a glorious thing, and it is a big part of what brings the trilogy to the level of myth. But the fate of brave, sweet Finn, turning from The Wild Hunt and then literally falling from the sky to his death – that is something even more. It felt like I was reading a fable’s first iteration, the story of a kind of Icarus, one who willingly chooses his tragic fate, in service of others.

Diarmud takes a deadly path at the end, to his own end. There is not much I can say about this sequence, other than that I shed some tears at the end of it. A character so full of life, yet so blithely willing to sacrifice that life for others, in an instant. An amazing thing.

Galadan’s whole existence is The Darkest Road. His transformation at the end, his ability to become something greater, something good, was carefully set up from the start of the tale. He is a man in love after all, and moved to his deeds because of that love’s rejection and the loneliness that followed. But despite the hints of what was to pass, when it did come to pass after all, it was still incredibly moving. Not all things from the dark are….all dark. Is there a more humanistic sentiment?

And Darien takes the Darkest Road, of course. His path is the path of the title: a road without friends, without a moral compass, one that leads to the heart of evil and one that ends in a sad and tragically lonely death. But such a death! He saves the world with his courage and his grace. Kay does not allow Darien’s final end to be easy for the reader…there is no one there at the boy's side, to protect him, to embrace him as he dies, to thank him for his sacrifice, to hold him as any child should be held when they are afraid and all alone. It is one of the saddest, bravest, most beautiful deaths I’ve ever read in fantasy literature.

Kay’s imagination is impressive, but even more impressive is his willingness to let tragedies be truly tragic, in the most real of ways. He does not try to balance the deaths out so that the reader is given a kind of easy comfort, a kind of well-they-may-have-lost-so & so but at least they have so & so. He does not make things easy. Some characters are not harmed and achieve a happy ending. Other characters are gone, forever. One set of parents sees both of their brave sons returned to them, and it is a joyous thing. Another set of parents have young sons who both die in the struggle, and in the end they are left alone with each other, and it is a terrible thing. A prince who is full of war, grim and unyielding, lives to rule; a prince that is full of light and a future full of love, is slain. A good seer’s soul remains forever exiled, outside of time. A student from our world remains dead, never to return to his own father. A child dies alone, with no one to tell him that he is loved. So many sad things. Such a beautiful tale, such a battle, and so hard-won, so resonant.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

I love Miriam Black!

Blackbirds (Miriam Black, #1)Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Miriam Black has an interesting talent. Whenever she touches a person's bare skin, she can tell when and how they die. On the run most of her life, she gets by hitchhiking and stealing. When a good Samaritan picks her up, she finds that he dies a few weeks later, saying her name as a knife goes through his eye and into his brain. Can Miriam beat fate and save the man's life? And how does Ashley, the grifter with the mysterious briefcase and the two FBI agents that are after him fit into everything?

So, yeah, I love Miriam Black. She's a foul-mouthed girl with a closet full of skeletons but I love her just the same. Imagine, being burdened with a "gift" like hers. Blackbirds brings her to life on the page and I could kick myself for not reading it as soon as it was published.

Blackbirds is the tale of one woman trying to beat fate, no matter what obstacle falls into her path. Miriam is far from the typical heroine. She's got a mouth like a sailor with Tourette's syndrome and is about as trustworthy as Mike Tyson at a beauty pageant at first glance. Her chance meetings with Louis and later Ashley set her already rocky life going up diarrhea drive on four bald tires.

Ingersoll, the baddie of the story, is obsessed with beating death and wants Miriam to help him. His flunkies, Harriet and Frankie, are ready to do whatever it takes to bring Miriam in. Although that's not how things get started.

I loved the way Wendig alternating between an interview with Miriam about herself and the tale as it unfolded. It was a good way to explain things without infodumps. It also sowed seeds for future stories down the line featuring Miriam's mother and other relatives.

Ordinarily, I'm not a huge fan of stories told in the present tense but I was so gripped by Blackbirds that I didn't notice the present tense until it was far too late to object. By that time, I was too invested in Miriam and the web of trouble she was entangled in to care.

That's about all I have to say. Blackbirds is the way urban fantasy is meant to be. Four out of five stars.

Mockingbird (Miriam Black, #2)Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Miriam Black tried to settle down with Louis but it was like trying to contain an angry cat in a pillow case. Now she's trying to protect at-risk teenage girls from a serial killer with a swallow tattoo on his chest. Can she stop him and save the girls or will the next death she witnesses be her own?

Miriam Black returns in the sequel to Blackbirds, bigger, badder, and Blacker than the first book. Unlike most sequels, this one doesn't suck. In fact, everything about it is better than the first.

Mockingbird is the story of Miriam trying to stop a serial killer and learning a few more things about herself, all the while continuing her self-abusive ways and foretelling the deaths of everyone she touches.

It all starts simply enough. A woman at a school for troubled girls wants to find out how she dies and Miriam winds up becoming friends with her and taking an interest in the girls. One of the things I really liked was Miriam having maternal feelings toward Wren, which leads to her trying to protect her from the man with the swallow tattoo.

The big bad of the book was chilling but since the big confrontation happened at the 75% mark, I knew the worst was yet to come. And it was. Miriam goes through the wringer and comes out a changed woman, not necessarily for the better. Also, Miriam got hit in the head so many times in this one I got a little nauseous.

That's about all I can say without giving away more than I want to. Since I nearly fived Blackbirds, it looks like I have no choice but to five this one. My feelings for Miriam Black has not faded. Now I'll tap my feet and check my watch until The Cormorant comes out...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Banned Books Week and Goodreads Censorship

It's that happy-clappy time again! Banned Books Week draws attention to the many and various attempts to censor what kind of reading material is available to you, me, our kids, our grandkids, and the banning parties hope, posterity. Books that talk about S-E-X or the right of women to walk down all the streets of the world without fearing rape or the existence of this little thing called "science" that rejects your religion's once-upon-a-time version of Creation.

"Ban it! Don't talk about it! NO!! Someone must be WRONG and it can't be ME!!"

In the long run, it doesn't work. In the short run, it's hideously costly in human emotional terms, titanically wasteful of time, effort, and resources to police and enforce, and morally repugnant to right-thinking people.

But it doesn't stop at formal banning of a book, governmental or religious anathema pronounced upon a writer, a press, a book...those things, while reprehensible, are formal, out there for the public to see and hear and (theoretically) obey. More insidious is a behavior that's meant to fly under the radar, and when discovered, covered up by (factually correct, morally wrong) justifications like "Oh look how few people are actually affected!" and "Most of you will never know it's even there!" and "It's my {concrete noun} and I'll do as I goddamned well please with it."

To quote a religious figure of great renown, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (Matthew 31:45) You didn't speak up for the safety or the happiness of those piddling few? You didn't worry because it wasn't you?

Next time it will be. Or the time after that. Or the one after that. Because if I've learned nothing else in 54 years of relatively constant annoyance by earthlings, I've learned that Command and Control NEVER EVER STOP WANTING MORE.

Specifically, I'm completely panitwadulous over the latest Goodreads self-inflicted PR wound. Last Friday, after the world has gone to weekend footing, Goodreads dumped the news of a major change in Terms of Service as they affect what reviewers...the unpaid volunteers who create the value that Amazon paid for the company to get!...can and cannot say to/about authors in their own reviews, and even more troublingly, what the reviewers can and cannot name the shelves or collections they put their books into.

I don't know if anyone on their staff expected the strength and passion of delivery of the vitriol that the sheeple (irony there!) of the site unleashed on this decision. If they did not, they were not paying attention to the titanic kerfuffle when Amazon bought Goodreads. Twenty-five hundred posts (mostly) of outrage and fear didn't make an impact? Not even the Ugly Green Button contretemps, with 2350 posts, made a dent?

Goodreads folk are passionate and committed readers and writers. And the reason they've...we've...invested so much emotional energy in the site is, at base, simple. It's the only one of its kind, the only place where readers connect with other readers by means of reviews, groups, and serendipity. Competitors to Goodreads are a great deal smaller, they're often focused around special interests (eg, LibraryThing, that unparalleled book cataloging site, with a sideline of social activity that's very much not encouraged), or they just haven't got the chops to make the ease and fluidity of opinion discovery on a par with Goodreads.

So naturally change will be resisted and feared by many, and just as naturally the Powers That Be will seek to direct the community's attention to such areas as will benefit the advertisers and/or owners who pay the bills. Some tension is inevitable, some compromise desirable on all sides. But to date, no compromise has been offered on any issue of site governance I've cited here. The policy announced Friday that announces Goodreads can and will delete user-created information at will and without warning is in place. The mea-culpa issued today with a reassurance that they won't delete stuff without warning again isn't, it appears, part of the formal policy yet.

This is put in place, we're told, because Goodreads wants to maintain a TONE, an atmosphere, of respect and tolerance. Because nothing says respect and tolerance like unilaterally changing a community-wide policy with a dump-and-run message on Friday afternoon, in a group that much less than 1% of the user base belongs to, right?

Still, it's their (well, Amazon's) site and they set the rules, right? Right. They do. And they offer the service to us for free, right, so they pretty much deserve to have a completely free hand, right?


I tweeted about this today, hoping to get some interest from Big Bloggers. Total response: One dismissive snort that essentially said, paraphrasing here, "suck it up Buttercup, if you're not the paying customer you're the paid-for commodity."

In BANNED BOOKS WEEK an example of censorship gets that kind of response. Wow.

Talking about books freely and without censorship, whether internal or external in origin, is as important an activity as reading the damn things. If no one talks about Mein Kampf, or Man and Superman, or The Nicomachaen Ethics, why kill the trees to print them? Why dedicate the bandwidth to delivering the files to the ereader screens? If people care enough to read even one book a year, shouldn't they be encouraged and supported in a desire to discuss it?

And that's what Goodreads was. Was. I have to use the past tense. It WAS this. It is now a data farm and sales platform for a bookselling entity. (Whose customer I am, by the way, and will continue to be, because I exist on less money per month that most of you make in a week.) And sales are hurt, the conventional wisdom goes, by shouting. Yeah, Paula Deen's racist language hurt her: Sales of her books, what, tripled? It was her publishers who said "ciao" and not the customers.

Which is its own level of icksome. But the point I'm making is simple: Stifling one, twenty-one, a million and one, people's willingness to speak honestly and from the heart about the ideas, the words, the feelings expressed in a book, by an author, is stealing from the rest of us who are unaffected the very necessary challenge of understanding, if never accepting, a different point of view. You may not ever agree, you may even like the opposition less than you did before you understood them better. (This happens to me with religious stuff all the time.)

But you still lose when ANY voice is silenced, out of fear or obedience or...worst of all...despair. How many honest reviews, negative to the author's feelings and even insulting in language, will now not be written? How many conversations will go un-had? (I've learned a lot from arguing my point on my most vitriolic reviews.)

Ray Bradbury said it best: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." And talking about them. And now there's no safe place to do that with the size audience, with their wallets ready to spring open.

The decline, it would seem, has accelerated, and the fall is imminent. I'm sad about that.

Congratulations to Johnny Shaw

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

(Note: I am re-posting this review in honor of the fact that the book won the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original Novel at the Bouchercon Convention last Saturday night. The award and the convention are named for Anthony Boucher, a critically important early reviewer of crime fiction, and Bouchercon is the biggest gathering of crime fiction fans and authors annually. The award is one of the most prestigious in the crime fiction field and couldn't go to a more deserving author.)

 This is Johnny Shaw's second novel, following his excellent debut, Dove Season. Again Shaw demonstrates his gift for weaving pathos with drop-dead humor and his ability to create memorable characters who are very sympathetic even though most of them are total losers.

Big Maria basically amounts to Treasure of Sierra Madre meets a Chevy Chase vacation movie. Harry Schmittberger is on medical leave from his job as a guard at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison. He is living on his disability checks and prolonging his return to work as long as humanly possible--preferably forever.

Rickey McBride is barely cobbling together an existence, attempting to provide a living for his wife and infant daughter by driving a dilapidated bus, transporting southern California senior citizens across the Mexican border where they can score cheap prescription drugs. Frank Pacheo is an aging Indian, struggling to beat cancer and other medical problems or at least hold them at bay for as long as possible.

When Harry accidentally overhears a conversation about a long-lost gold mine, the Big Maria, he sees what he believes might be his last real chance to escape his miserable life. Rickey and Frank are drawn into the plan which seems ridiculously simple, save for a few minor problems. To begin with, the map to the lost mine is buried under an abandoned house and the house in turn is at the bottom of a lake that has been created by the construction of a dam. If that weren't bad enough, the mine itself is now smack in the middle of a military artillery range.

While obstacles like this might deter lesser men, Harry, Rickey and Frank press on against all odds, determined to find the fortune that will set their lives on a brighter path. It's an incredible journey, often touching and hilariously funny within the same paragraph. And it speaks volumes to the dreams and to the bonds that drive and inspire all of us.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Authors as Magicians

Robin Sloan
Read September 2013
Reviewed by Carol
★  ★  ★  1/2
Authors are magicians. I was in the early pages of Mr. Penumbra when I realized that Sloan was sneaking in a major chain of events in only a few short paragraphs with the intention of moving the story to where he needed it. It was the authorial equivalent of "look, nothing up my sleeve" in preparation of a hat trick. Rather than irritation from this momentary flap of curtain or glimpse of rabbit ear, I was rather captivated.

Thinking back on books I've loved or hated, it occurs to me that in that moment of authorial sleight-of-hand, the reader willingness to accept the underlying set-up is fundamental to the experience of the story, particularly in fantasy, sci-fiction and magical realism. A suspension of belief at the right parts, or at least belief enough in the presentation to accept and enjoy it, is crucial to a good read.

Penumbra is charming, and it was easy to be interested in Clay's search for a job, intrigued by the mystery of the bookstore, and captivated by the charisma of Clay's friends. Eventually, Sloan reaches a bit too far, tries a large-scale trick that requires more stage presence and set-up than he can pull off. In particular, the New York section started to feel like someone imported The Da Vinci Code. It's the equivalent of seeing a magician at the local theater and watching them try and disappear the Empire State Building. The story veers out of control and falls apart, yet still manages to remain charm and sincerity to be worth reading.

Part of Sloan's skill is in his ability to capture familiar emotion. I remember those days when I had job-idealism:
"But I kept at it with the help-wanted ads. My standards were sliding swiftly. At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission I believe in. Then I thought maybe it would be find as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn't be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil."

There's a lovely, lovely description of a bookstore, instantly familiar to any book-lover:
"The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest--not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight's reach.

A description of Clay's co-worker, Oliver, instantly resonated with that interesting dualism of solid and dreamy:
"Oliver is a graduate student at Berkeley, studying archeology. Oliver is training to be a museum curator... He speaks in short, simple sentences and always seems to be thinking about something else, something long ago and/or far away. Oliver daydreams about Ionian columns."

I too have a nebula friend:
"So I guess you could say Neel owes me a few favors, except that so many favors have passed between us now that they are no longer distinguishable as individual acts, just a bright haze of loyalty. Our friendship is a nebula."

I also have to commend both Clay and Sloan for writing a meeting of a love interest that involves hair, tee-shirt, nail and chipped tooth, culminating with:
"This girls has the spark of life. This is my primary filter for new friends (girl- and otherwise) and the highest compliment I can pay."

Despite the strong, delightful beginning, Sloan lost me by the end. I thought the quest metaphor was clever, and appreciated the connection with a fantasy trilogy and friend that was instrumental in Clay's formative years but it didn't quite stretch far enough. Or maybe it did, and the quest was an illusion. It's hard to say; Sloan was showing his hand too much by the end and the spy caper didn't fit with the sweet bookstore mystery. The romance was lost in the quest, and imperfectly resolved. Neel's professional fascination with boobs struck me as a false note, although it had the feel of a ten-year-old voyeur over the thirty-year-old creeper. My final complaint is rooting the story so solidly in Google; perhaps integral to Sloan's version of the story, it significantly roots it in time and will date it faster than any other element. For me, these concerns added up to too many wires and mirrors, and allowed me to lose the illusion.

Three, three and a half stars.


by Karen Kincy

Reviewed by Sesana
Three out of five stars

Publisher Summary:

Seventeen-year-old Gwen hides a dangerous secret: she’s Other. Half-pooka, to be exact, thanks to the father she never met. Most Americans don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for Others, especially not the small-town folks of Klikamuks, Washington. As if this isn’t bad enough, Gwen’s on the brink of revealing her true identity to her long-time boyfriend, Zack, but she’s scared he’ll lump her with the likes of bloodthirsty vampires and feral werewolves.

When a pack of werewolves chooses the national forest behind Gwen’s home as their new territory, the tensions in Klikamuks escalate--into murder. It soon becomes clear a serial killer is methodically slaying Others. The police turn a blind eye, leaving Gwen to find the killer before the killer finds her. As she hunts for clues, she uncovers more Others living nearby than she ever expected. Like Tavian, a sexy Japanese fox-spirit who rivals Zack and challenges her to embrace her Otherness. Gwen must struggle with her own conflicted identity, learn who she can trust, and--most importantly--stay alive.

My Review:

This is a really interesting world that Kincy's put together. Fantasy creatures like centaurs and fairies are real, and increasingly public in their lives. Aside from the Others (or people with a paranormal identity, which is fabulously PC), this is recognizably modern America. Considering that Kincy doesn't give her supernatural characters much in the way of extraordinary powers, this isn't exactly X-Men. Or maybe it is, because The Others is mostly about the sort of prejudice that one would expect to spring up when people discover that vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters are real. People staring at the centaur in the supermarket? Naturally. Pray the fey away church groups? Sadly, yes. A serial killer who pointedly poses his Other victims in ways that suggest their exact paranormal natures? I can see this happening.

Kincy's worldbuilding is the strongest part of the book. Granted, it is mostly our world as we know it, but the way people react to the Others is consistent and makes sense. She also handles the various abilities (and weaknesses) of the Others in a way that's internally consistent and mostly consistent with the stories that her readers will be familiar with. That said, she also ventures outside the usual suspects that pop up again and again in fantasy. There are werewolves, sure, but main character Gwen isn't one. She's a pooka, a Welsh shapeshifter that I doubt many readers in the target audience would have heard of before. Gwen's friend Chloe isn't a fairy, she's a dryad. Honestly, I get sick of book after book being about werewolves or vampires, and it's nice to see some variety.

That said, how much you like this book will depend almost entirely on how much you can bring yourself to like Gwen. I did end up liking her, mostly, but she could be frustrating. She has believable flaws, even if they can be irritating. It can be very annoying to watch her cling to her prejudice against Others that are made (like vampires), not born (like herself- her father was a pooka). And yet, I entirely believe that growing up as she did, in the culture that she did, she'd feel judgmental towards those she sees as making her own life harder. I never felt like the author agreed with her in the slightest, or felt that we should, which made it bearable. The way she handles her relationship with boyfriend Zack (who does not know that she's a pooka) made me want to shake her sometimes, but it's also painfully realistic. How many girls hide important things about themselves from boys they love, out of the fear of losing them?

That said, I had a harder time with how doggedly Gwen stuck with her initial impression that a werewolf Chloe is dating must be a bad person. Of course, she's basing it off of negative werewolf stereotypes, and of course those stereotypes have been heavily ingrained in her. But after awhile, it stops making any sort of sense that Gwen would still be convinced that a werewolf is behind the Other murders, and especially not this werewolf. And yet it takes her almost the entire length of the book to come to grips with that. I was also surprised with how she kept trying to find the killer, against all reason. And speaking of less than wise decisions, how about shapeshifting openly, outdoors, on a sunny day? When you know that somebody is stalking and killing Others in your hometown, shouldn't you be more cautious?

I like the world that Kincy has created, and I think it holds together. I'm torn about her main character. Gwen can be very hard to like, but it's also easy to see why she is the way she is. It seems that other books in the series have different narrators, so I may try those, too.  

Also reviewed at Goodreads.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by: Nancy

3 out of 5 stars


Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

My Review

I really loved Last Night I Sang to the Monster. It was sad, beautiful and powerful. It moved me deeply, making me cry buckets, shredding my heart to pieces and putting it all back together. I’m not really a crier. If a story has the kind of power to turn me inside out, then I want more.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was to finally get a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe from the library. The cover is gorgeous and infused with meaning. The story was easy to read and difficult to put down.

This was an introspective story about two very different Mexican-American boys as they navigate the troubled waters of adolescence. This is the kind of story I should have loved, particularly for the fact there are so few Latino characters in young-adult fiction.

The story was told from the perspective of 15-year-old Angel Aristotle Mendoza (hereinafter known as Ari). Ari’s older brother is in prison, his father is emotionally distant, his mother is warm and loving, but keeps lots of secrets. So I can understand why Ari has a hard time expressing his feelings. He’s introverted, angry, lonely, and confused. One of the major problems with Ari telling this story is that he is incapable of expressing any deep feelings. Enter Dante Quintana, who offers to teach Ari to swim while the boys are at the neighborhood pool. Dante loves art, loves to read and has a good relationship with his parents. Though he’s warm and friendly, he’s a little too different to have many friends. Dante and Ari bond.

There is lots of questioning about identity and sexuality. There is an accident, a long-distance move, a sharing of secrets, and lots of pondering of big questions in a small way. There was also lots of laughter.

“Do you have sex?”
“Sex, Ari.”
“No, never had sex, Dante. But I’d like to.”
“Me too. See what I mean? We’re nice.”
“Nice,” I said. “Shit.”
“Shit,” he said.
And then we busted out laughing.

(Smoking pot for the first time)

We both smiled, then laughed.
“You’re a bad boy,” I said.
“You’re a bad boy too.”
“Just what we’ve always wanted to be.”
“If our parents knew,” I said.
“If our parents knew,” he said.
We laughed.

There was just too much laughter and childish repetition, which got annoying very quickly. For a story that explored matters of the mind and heart, I felt there was not enough depth or emotion.

Ari’s parents, and Dante’s for that matter, did not ring true to me. There was too much love and coddling and not enough conflict.

The story took place in 1987 and I’m thankful the boys wrote letters to each other, sparing me from reading text messages full of confusing shorthand.

The ending felt too rushed and out of character. I won’t say anything more, but I wish Ari had discovered it for himself.

Not a huge fan of this work, but I do love Sáenz’ spare and elegant prose, and will look forward to reading more of his stories.

Also posted at Goodreads.